by Thomas P. Healy
In late December 2017, Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) and Butler University announced that their respective boards had approved an agreement for Butler to purchase a 40-acre portion of the CTS campus.
Both institutions retain their autonomy and CTS will continue to use its current office and classroom space, according to the terms of a 100-year lease. The seminary also keeps ownership of its Interchurch Center at 1100 West 42nd St. as well as an adjacent parcel of land along Michigan Road for future development.
Butler University president James Danko took some time recently to talk with Indy Midtown Magazine about the acquisition and what it means for the university and the surrounding neighborhood.
IMM: Butler’s expansion potential on the athletic fields if the floodplain issue is resolved, along with the CTS campus acquisition, should alleviate concerns about expansion into residential neighborhoods.
James Danko: The CTS campus acquisition allows us to gravitate in that direction rather than east into the neighborhoods. Just to step back from this, it really was something that struck me the first day that I saw the Butler campus when I was invited to Indianapolis to interview for this job in early 2011. My wife, Bethany, and I were staying downtown and we thought we should check out the campus. The concierge at the Omni told us to drive north 5 miles on Meridian and turn left at 46th Street. It was in spring and classes were in session when we arrived. We got to 46th and Sunset and saw cars parked left and right and a parking lot right in front. It really did strike me as soon as I hit the campus. It was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of cars!’
IMM: So you set out to change that?
JD: At that point in time, that was the main entrance to campus. It felt like a very urban kind of campus. I had envisioned Butler as a little bit more like Villanova or John Carroll—places I had worked that are more campus-like.
Shortly after I was hired, my chief of staff at the time, Ben Hunter, and I began talking about expansion, and he was helpful over the years in engaging with the City to get the funds to improve the streetscape of Sunset Avenue. It transformed the neighborhood, not just the campus.
It always bothered me that there was a feeling coming in to campus from the west that it was deserted. There’s no life. So, in some of the early conversations with CTS we discussed if someday Michigan Road and 42nd Street by Newfields could become more of a major entry point so that the Butler campus is viewed in a much bigger way.
Around that time, Matt Bolton came in as president of CTS and we hit it off. The CTS board was talking about being fiscally responsible—they had a lot of property and declining enrollments and smaller staff and an expensive building to maintain. Originally we were talking about maybe Butler leasing part of the building, and there was a lot of conversation about shared programs and shared facilities.
It has taken a lot of negotiations and a lot of different attempts at different approaches with CTS. They always wanted to avoid the sense of merger, because we were the larger entity and they have their own identity. Matt was always cognizant of that, as was I. It was only a year ago that we kind of turned it around to, what if Butler acquires the property? We finally got to a point where we could talk about what is, in many respects, a land deal, not a merger of entities.
The vision that this is a major campus with different entry points is still there. You want to have a vibrant sense of campus feel from one end to the next and so you just look at what your flow of traffic is around the campus—including down by the athletic fields. How do you add some life and energy to it?
IMM: I understand the School of Education will be moving to CTS this summer.
JD: Yes. In fall they will have students there. But the vision is much bigger. You can’t always think about the here and now. You have to think about what it’s going to be like in 20 to 30 years. We’ve secured something that will hopefully have a positive impact on Butler for the next couple of generations. The issue that confronts us right now is how do you begin? What are the first steps of that vision? What I can say is I don’t know what it is, but I’m really confident there is a third piece of the puzzle here besides CTS and Butler that’s going to enter the equation. Perhaps it’s a for-profit entity, or a nonprofit entity, or perhaps it’s a city government entity that wants to be aligned with the University—then you could start figuring out a way to make that a reality. So while there’s not any present offer on the table, what a number of us are out there doing is talking about the opportunity now within the context of this larger vision of a comprehensive campus and how it might play out to enhance the neighborhood, to enhance the campus feel.
IMM: Assessed values of properties adjacent to the university are strong, so there is economic benefit beyond campus property lines.
JD: I’m not unaware of the fact that universities sometimes get cast in a role as kind of problematic in their neighborhoods—there’s always a tension. We had that at Villanova. I understand there was some of this in the past here, but myself and Ben Hunter, who preceded Michael Kaltenmark, and chief facilities officer Rich Michal, we’ve all been on the same page and very aware of our obligation for the greater good. Butler is a major economic force, a major employer, and that also means we have an obligation.
We’re fortunate to be in this location and be part of a city that’s quite vibrant and, I would contend, really rising in a great way. We have the advantage of nonprofit status. With that comes responsibility and we take that seriously. In every thing we’ve done we’ve gone out and engaged and asked people, ‘How’s this going to affect your life?’ ‘How’s a parking garage going to help or hurt?’ ‘What amenities would you like that will serve the neighborhood?’
It all flows from a vision and a mission to elevate the neighborhood along with ourselves and understand that there is an obligation and a responsibility. We’re not just here in isolation. We very much are influenced by what’s around us. We can’t solve every problem. We can’t own every problem. But at least we can partner and figure out what’s of mutual benefit here. We don’t pursue some of these strategic things, especially when it has to do with our surrounding area and our environment, in isolation. We do it in collaboration. butler.edu